Happy Sands

By Jay Smith
Cover image of the book has the image of a fish with its mouth open. The title is in yellow cursive font and the authors name is in red

by Barb Howard, University of Calgary Press, 2021/$24.99/138 pp.

Barb Howard’s new novel, Happy Sands, details the summertime revelation of 42-year-old massage therapist Ginny (short for Ginette, which reminds her of a “too-small bottle of booze, the kind you used to get on airplanes”) Johnson. She and her family perform a summertime migration familiar to many middle-class families in Alberta. They go to British Columbia. There they spend a week at Happy Sands, a lakeside resort where the same set of families vacation together every year. Unlike the others, who are there to relax, Ginny spends her vacation time hauling her massage table about, working on the other vacationers. The money she receives goes directly to buy her booze, the continual consumption of which becomes a narrative pivot.

Howard has chosen to tell the story of the Johnson’s week-long vacation through Ginny’s myopic internal monologue. Pettily, Ginny lingers on class divisions—the families that own boats, those that do not. The widowed single mother who insists on paying for her massages with baking, even though her bathroom is stocked with expensive facial serums. She’s distraught by the happiness that others seem to be having—those out on their boats with their sporting children; an old lesbian couple floating on air mattresses, holding hands, otter-like; a menthol-scented fitness buff zooming about on a bicycle. Meanwhile, Ginny’s husband, Martin, is depressed. He doesn’t often get out of bed. Their two children are both at teenagerly ages where they seem not to want anything to do with their mother. Hence, Ginny’s time at Happy Sands is hardly happy.

Just before the up-close narration cloys, the reader realizes Ginny’s oversharing, minutiae-driven monologue disguises a real unreliability. One begins to question her self-knowledge, particularly about her drinking. The alcohol consumption starts innocently enough, but soon you’re counting how many drinks Ginny has had before she starts massaging her fellow vacationer-clients. She’s letting her just-out-of-Grade-10 son drink at dinner, wait, she’s letting him get that drunk? She’s having beer at breakfast, again? Then there’s a series of petty crimes and mishaps which forces Ginny to a reckoning about her relationship with her family and also herself.

Howard is a creative-writing instructor and mentor who has written four previous books of fiction. Her experience is apparent. Happy Sands is a quick read—only 138 pages—that will resonate. You can trot out the truism that all happy families are alike while only unhappy families are unique. But Happy Sands stands for the proposition that the inverse is perhaps also true. Happy families can be utterly idiosyncratic.

Jay Smith is a long-time reviewer for Alberta Views.

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